Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 6 in D, Op. 60 [45:38]
Nocturne in B, Op. 40 [7:38]
Scherzo Capriccioso, Op. 66 [15:00]
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
rec. live 27-30 March 2008 (Symphony, Nocturne), 19-22 March 2009 (Scherzo), Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
NAXOS 8.570995 [68:14]

I had a lukewarm response to Marin Alsop’s Dvorák Ninth with the Baltimore Symphony, and was hard-pressed to find anything special about it. I felt the same way about her Eighth and was harshly critical of the Seventh. But now, just when I was ready to write off Alsop’s Dvorák cycle entirely, she offers an unquestionably superb Sixth.

This is a performance of the symphony which has nearly every advantage: lively tempi in the outer movements which ensure that things move along excitingly, a full orchestral sound with especially commanding brass, and sound which puts the listener in the center of the concert hall. At first I thought that the timing of the first movement (16:12) was a misprint, but no: Alsop, like Witold Rowicki and almost nobody else, takes the first-movement repeat. True, Dvorák felt the repeat was best left aside, but Alsop and her band make a great case for it, especially at the vigorous tempi they have chosen. It feels right: the music moves along with freshness and life.

The adagio is good. However, Václav Talich’s luxuriously slow adagio (13:28) has utterly ruined most rivals for me; Talich and his Czech Philharmonic linger lovingly over every single woodwind solo in a way which might well strike some as excessive. I, however, adore it, and as good as Alsop is, her adagio sounds rather ordinary in comparison. Not that she can be faulted: sounding ordinary, too, are Kubelík, Ancerl, Rowicki, and Mackerras, although Otmar Suitner conjures up his own magical effects.

The scherzo is lively but a bit herky-jerky next to Kubelík’s - does the main tune get faster after the trio? The finale is hugely exciting and benefits from splendid brass and wind playing, especially in the thrilling coda. The trombones, especially, have a satisfying weight which makes their appearances memorable. All in all, I would say that this eclipses the previous Naxos effort with the Slovak Philharmonic and Stephen Gunzenhauser - that sounds like a grudging compliment, but in fact Gunzenhauser’s Sixth is very good - and will please both Dvorákians and newcomers. The best digital account is probably that from Charles Mackerras on Supraphon - which has a simply blazing finale and the glorious Czech Philharmonic - but any buyer has to consider this.

The couplings are not bad either. The Nocturne is simply gorgeous, and sounds ahead of its time. Marin Alsop gave us my preferred recording of Barber’s Adagio (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) and in many ways the Dvorák Nocturne is a perfect complement: both string orchestra scores with immediate lyrical and emotional appeal, unusually deep and reflective in mood, in neighboring keys (B flat minor and B major), and achieving nearly exactly opposite effects. No wonder Alsop is so assured here. The Scherzo capriccioso is less unambiguously a success: it sounds as if Alsop has knowingly traded rhythmic snap and energy for tonal allure. The advantage is that the Baltimore Symphony sounds really wonderful; the disadvantage is that the scherzo is not as capriccioso as Kubelík, Dohnányi or Mariss Jansons would have it. Kudos to Alsop, though, for observing the trio’s repeat, something those three men fail to do.

The last CD in this series was one of my two least favorite CDs of 2010. So what has changed between this installment and previous ones? First, Alsop has had a predilection for fast tempi which helped ruin her Seventh but suits the outer movements of the Sixth well; second, her orchestra is one I have described as a Brahms orchestra, with full, rich strings, and the Baltimore Symphony is therefore better-suited to the Sixth as well. Equally importantly, the sound engineers here finally give the winds a bit of room to breathe. The timpani are still rather recessed, but the brass have much more of a say here than they did in the Seventh, where they occasionally seemed to have been caught napping or in another room. The trombones, as mentioned, earn a really satisfying prominence.

The bottom line: this is the best (so far) of Marin Alsop’s Dvorák, by a long shot. Admirers of the Sixth Symphony will find much to enjoy. If you have been collecting this series, invest in the new volume with confidence, and then sell the earlier issues at a rummage sale.

Brian Reinhart

The best, by far, of Alsop’s until-now sleepy Dvorák cycle.